Conflicting Accounts – Was Old Town Stabbing Victim Actually a Violent Slumlord?

From the Portland Mercury, August 4 2009

On a Sunday morning four weeks ago police arrested Keith Grotewald, a 57-year-old tenant of the Westwind apartments, on suspicion of repeatedly stabbing Martin Porth, the building manager. “Downtown apartment manager stabbed after he tried to get tenant to clean his apartment,” read the headline of an Oregonian story about the incident on Tuesday, July 14.

What actually transpired is far more complicated.

The Westwind’s 73 apartments, on the corner of NW 6th and Flanders, are a different world from Portland’s chi-chi Pearl District just two blocks to the west. Satellite dishes adorn most windows facing the street, and rent ranges from around $200 to almost $500 a month for 400 square feet, depending on location within the building. With its reasonable pricing at a quarter of the Pearl District’s average, the Westwind tends to appeal to transients and those with economic, medical, and addiction problems.

Grotewald, who suffered head injuries after being hit by a car when he was 10, is a typical tenant at the Old Town dive. He suffers from mental health issues, pays rent from a Social Security check, and claims to be in treatment for alcohol addiction, according to court documents. With a long shaggy beard, unkempt hair, and an unresolved case still open against him for allegedly tearing the windshield wiper off a TriMet bus, Grotewald has obvious problems.

Keith Grotewold

Keith Grotewold

Regardless of Grotewald’s past, a Multnomah County grand jury dropped Grotewald’s second-degree assault case related to the alleged stabbings on Friday, July 24.

“There were two avenues for the grand jury to return a ‘no true bill’,” explains Deputy District Attorney Greg Moawad, who presented evidence for the prosecution to the grand jury. “Either that [Grotewald] acted in self-defense, or that it was impossible to decipher what happened. We had four or five eyewitnesses, and each and every one had a different version of events, including some witnesses that had a couple.”

According to court documents, Porth told police that Grotewald’s apartment was “infested with dead mice and cockroaches,” and that he had knocked on the door and entered the apartment, where he began to pick up garbage until Grotewald pushed him out. After other residents calmed Grotewald down, Porth told police he started to clean up again, when Grotewald stabbed him twice in the back with a filet knife.

Grotewald, on the other hand, told detectives that Porth had “broken into his room and assaulted him.” Grotewald claimed Porth was removing his property, and that Grotewald was “defending his property.”

It’s not clear whether Porth followed Oregon tenant law, which requires 24 hours notice before entering Grotewald’s room to “clean” it. It’s also possible Grotewald’s “property” may have amounted to a few garbage sacks. (Other tenants told the Mercury Grotewald returned on Saturday afternoon with a full black plastic sack from a day foraging in the city’s trashcans.) Some witnesses also alleged Porth hit Grotewald before he was stabbed.

Adding to the incident’s uncertainty is Porth’s documented history of violence against Westwind tenants. “The grand jury’s finding [in the Grotewald case] is consistent with information that we have about Mr. Porth’s conduct in the past,” says Grotewald’s attorney, Thomas MacNair.

Porth pled guilty to fourth degree assault in September 2007 after beating then 56-year-old Westwind tenant Monte Coburn, in apparent retaliation for Coburn’s complaints about a fellow tenant’s barking dog.

“Motherfucker, this is my building and I’ll run it like I want,” Porth told Coburn—according to police reports quoting witnesses to the incident—before dragging Coburn out of his apartment and throwing him to the ground. A witness said Porth told Coburn “that he’d better be happy he didn’t break Coburn’s head instead of his arm.” Porth told another witness he would kick his “fucking ass” and to “come on over” if he “wanted some of it too,” according to police reports. “This is my building,” he repeated.

A deputy district attorney recommended a sentence of 30 days in jail for Porth, two years’ bench probation, anger management counseling, and no contact with Coburn, in exchange for his guilty plea in 2007.

The Mercury has talked with four frightened Westwind tenants on condition of anonymity since Grotewald’s stabbing charges were dropped. They all alleged that Porth’s documented behavior toward Coburn was hardly out of character in the context of his tenure as manager of the apartment complex over recent years. Furthermore they have all made additional troubling allegations against Porth that cast Grotewald’s alleged stabbing of the apartment manager in a different light.

One tenant, who was called before the grand jury in the Grotewald case, told the Mercury Porth threatened to kill them if they testified against him there. Another tenant says Porth threatened to “blow up the building” if anybody testified against him at grand jury—a threat made more disturbing by Porth’s 1994 conviction in Klamath County for second degree arson.

Three tenants claim Porth has a history of hitting tenants, in addition to imposing a climate of intimidation at the Westwind. “He knows these people have problems,” says one tenant. “He scares them to hell, and then he takes advantage of them.”

All four tenants allege that Porth is receiving Social Security checks at the Westwind despite receiving regular payments for his work and living in a separate house on SE 80th Place—the federal government does not give out details on Social Security recipients.

According to court documents and property records, the Southeast home that Porth resides in is actually owned by Porth’s boss, Mike Narver, who tenants say pays Porth several thousand dollars a month in cash to manage the Westwind. Narver, who also runs the Stewart Apartments above Mary’s Club on SW Broadway, did not respond to the Mercury’s repeated requests for comment on this story by press time.

Porth may also be running a scheme to skim extra money from the rent checks of some Westwind tenants, according to the four anonymous tenants.

“Every time something’s wrong, he says, ‘That’s it, it’s your last straw, you’re out of here,'” says one tenant. “Then he wanted me to pay an extra $50 cleaning fee or something. He was going to kick me out but he said, ‘I’ll tell you what, I’ll let you stay here but you pay me $50 a month extra and we’ll be all right.'”

“I asked him for a receipt but he said, ‘No, I’ve got to have cash,'” the tenant continues.

“He told me that extra money ‘comes to me for putting up with their shit,'” says another tenant, alleging that Porth may be charging up to a dozen tenants extra “last-chance payments” in cash each month. Allegations over these rent irregularities surfaced at Grotewald’s grand jury hearing, and sources say that the Portland Police Bureau is now investigating the accusations—although it is against the bureau’s policy to comment on such matters.

To make the story even more confusing, Porth told the Mercury on Monday afternoon, August 3, that he is not even the manager of the Westwind—contrary to what he told the police after Grotewald stabbed him, according to court reports. Porth says he cleaned up Grotewald’s room as a favor to his fiancée, who is the real manager of the building.

“She didn’t want to go in there, it was gross, and get bitten by the mice,” he says. “I did it as a favor.”

Porth adds that he doesn’t remember telling police he was the building manger and that “I just got stabbed.” He says he used to be the manager at the building and that “the people still have it in their heads that I am the manager. I don’t work there, I don’t want to work there.”

Porth says his fiancée gave Grotewald 24 hours notice before he entered Grotewald’s room. Porth denies all other allegations in this article, apart from receiving Social Security checks at the Westwind.

OUR COMMENT – We’re interested in this story for a variety of reasons. Foremost is the three buildings Mike Narver manages, The Stewart, The Home, and The Westwind are dangerous shitholes unmatched by other shitholes in Portland, and entirely funded by city, county, state, and federal subsidy checks for persons often too despicable or recalcitrant to be accepted by local agencies for services and conventionally subsidized housing. We call upon these agencies, including the Veterans’ Administration, Transition Projects, Central City Concern, Catholic Charities, Portland Impact, Human Solutions, Native American Rehabilitation Association, DePaul Treatment Centers, to STOP referring their clients to these buildings.

In the 1970s there was a long-winded conversation about improving skid row – civilizing it. Some basic agreements or understandings were reached. There was agreement children should not live on skid row. Up to that point they had. Today, aside from the stupid experiments by the Salvation Army, this agreement has been upheld. There was agreement that food should not be used as a leveraging tool. Sisters of the Road and Blanchet House are examples. And there was agreement the private “hotels” were squalid shitholes and should be bought up and managed by accountable nonprofit organizations. This has been a primary mission of Central City Concern and Transition Projects.

We call upon the City and the Housing Authority to do with these three buildings what they have recently done with the Grove Hotel – buy them, repair them, and manage them for the same or similar persons – but within the law.